NEWARK – St. Elizabeth watched Caravel’s superb scorer, O’Koye Parker, go without a point in the first half of the teams’ matchup in the semifinal round of the DIAA boys’ state basketball tournament, but they knew he could get hot at any time. That time came in the third quarter, when Parker scored 11 points, but the Vikings withstood the Buccaneers’ comeback attempt and advanced to their first state championship game with a 57-41 win March 8 at the Bob Carpenter Center.
St. Elizabeth held a 15-point halftime lead, and they were ahead, 32-17, when Parker’s jumper came to life. He nailed three straight three-point shots, cutting the lead to six, and after a layup by Brandon Sengphachanh made it 32-28, the Caravel faithful could sense a return trip to the final. But the Vikings, who improved to 18-6, did not let them get any closer, sealing a victory. They will meet defending champion Smyrna on Saturday at noon at the Bob.
Coach Matt Rubincam said his players have bought into a defense-first approach, and it has paid dividends late in the season. When these teams met Jan. 31, Caravel put up 75 points.
“Our defense has gotten us where we are right now,” Rubincam said. “The kids have finally realized that if you’re going to beat good teams like this, you’ve got to play good team defense, and you’ve got to rebound.”
He praised Justin Money for the job he did on Parker, rarely taking his eyes off the prolific scorer.
“Justin Money is probably one of the best defenders in the state. He is one of the kids who never gets any credit probably because he doesn’t put big numbers up. Most guys anymore don’t look at the defensive end of the game. He can really shut down a person,” he said.
The Vikings put the game away with a decisive 10-point run over a four-minute span in the fourth quarter, while holding Caravel off the scoreboard for just shy of six minutes. The score was 39-34 when the run started with a free throw by Jordan Brown. Jaden Dickerson made a pair of free throws, extending the lead to eight. Nate Thomas and Dickerson added layups, and the run concluded with three more free throws, one from Dickerson and two from Thomas.
Dickerson, a freshman, said he wasn’t fazed by the pressure of playing at the Carpenter Center.
“It was just a good experience. When you have veterans on the team supporting you, it’s kind of easy to go out there and play basketball,” he said.
St. Elizabeth hit eight straight free throws in the final 1:06 and finished the night making 19 of 26 attempts for 73 percent.
Caravel, meanwhile, struggled from the field all night. The Buccaneers shot less than 30 percent from the field, including just six of 24 in the first half. St. Elizabeth did a superb job of stifling Parker and senior D.J. Earl, holding the duo to just eight first-half points.
Thomas continued his outstanding play with 15 points and 18 rebounds and is excited to be on the first St. Elizabeth boys team to play for the state title.
“Just trying to give it all for my team and my school,” he said. “They deserve it a lot. I’m so thankful for the opportunity they’ve given me over the past couple years. I’m glad I could kind of give it back to them a little bit.”
Earl helped Caravel to the early lead, scoring six of his team’s first eight points as the Bucs took an 8-7 lead. Ray Jones scored off an assist by Justin Money with 3:54 to go in the first to put the Vikings ahead for good. St. Elizabeth put the heat on Caravel by scoring 15 in a row, including the final 13 points of the second quarter, a burden that was simply too much for the Buccaneers to overcome.
Brown, like Thomas, had a double-double with 15 points and 10 rebounds, while Dickerson had 11 points. Rubincam said the Vikings will be back in the gym Friday preparing for Smyrna.
“We won’t be happy until we finish it on Saturday, and hopefully it will be a win,” he said.
For Caravel, Parker’s stellar career came to an end with 13 points. Earl added 12. The Bucs finished the season with a record of 17-6.
St. Elizabeth knocks off Caravel, advances to boys hoops final for first time